For eight days after the Islamists set fire to one of the world's most precious collections of ancient manuscripts, the alarm inside the building blared. It was an eerie, repetitive beeping, a cry from the innards of the injured library that echoed around the world. The al-Qaida-linked extremists who ransacked the institute wanted to deal a final blow to Mali, so, as they left, they torched the Ahmed Baba Institute of Higher Learning and Islamic Research, aiming to destroy a heritage of 30,000 manuscripts that date back to the 13th century. However, they had already been foiled.
Their final act before leaving was to go through the exhibition room in the institute, as well as the whitewashed laboratory used to restore the age-old parchments. They grabbed the books they found and burned them. However, they didn't bother searching the old building, where an elderly man named Abba Alhadi has spent 40 of his 72 years on earth taking care of rare manuscripts. The illiterate old man, who walks with a cane and looks like a character from the Bible, was the perfect foil for the Islamists. They wrongly assumed that the city's European-educated elite would be the ones trying to save the manuscripts, he said. So last August, Alhadi began stuffing the thousands of books into empty rice and millet sacks.
You can read this great story of the efforts of an illiterate man to save old books and manuscripts at http://bigstory.ap.org/article/people-timbuktu-save-manuscripts-invaders.
My thanks to Mark Olsen for telling me about this story.